The future of construction with hololens
KvalhoTalks with Paul Affentranger | Co-founder of afca AG
Welcome to KVALHO TALKS – a series of interviews and discussions with experts, innovators and entrepreneurs within the AEC & real estate industries. We sat together with Paul Affentranger, one of the founders of afca, who shares with us his view on how mixed reality can change the way we create, work and communicate in the construction industry.

afca is a Swiss software company for innovative projects, which is pioneering the development of applications for Microsoft's HoloLens. This is a tool which is now taking the construction world by storm. His main interest is in new technologies and the possibilities they offer. Always concentrating on the customers' needs, afca makes the best possible use of "cutting edge technologies".
Enjoy the interview !

Could you give us a short overview of afca and the work you do?
afca is a software company founded in 1995 and has a team of 15 developers and designers. We are based in Zollikofen, Switzerland – a short train journey from Bern. We do our best not to stand still, therefore over the years our services have evolved together with the need of constantly developing the digital world. Four years ago we started working with the augmented reality tool Google Glass. In the summer 2016, we began developing software and mixed reality apps for Microsoft HoloLens. Now almost half of our workload is with HoloLens and we think in the upcoming years we will do even more in this area.

Can you explain the difference between VR, AR and MR. And what exactly HoloLens is?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a 3D computer-generated scenario that simulates a realistic experience that shuts out the physical world. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to "look around" in the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items. But it cannot see the real surrounding environment and people. Also walking around with a VR headset is limited. VR, offers the best view, and the best immersion, therefore its perfect for presenting interiors of the house, where in a way you don't need to interact with anyone to experience it.

Augmented reality (AR) adds digital elements to a live view often by using the camera on a smartphone. Examples of AR experiences include Snapchat lenses and the game Pokemon Go.

Mixed reality (MR) combines elements of both AR and VR and it creates an experience where the real-world and digital objects interact together. MR is used in cases when interaction of team members is necessary to discuss or experience a virtual object. MR works well in construction projects. Mixed reality technology is just now starting to take off with Microsoft's HoloLens, which is one of the most notable early mixed reality devices.

HoloLens can show the holograms in 3D and it's a mixed between traditional augmented reality and virtual reality. The advantage is that the HoloLens at the same time shows the 3D view of the ''future, virtual object'' and at simultaneously it allows to see the real world directly through the lens.
Last year you completed a HoloLens project for the City of Zürich in the construction sector. How was the idea for this project born and how did you establish your expertise to secure them as a first client?
One day Microsoft Switzerland asked us if we could do a demo for a conference dedicated to the public sector in the area of city planning. To do a useful demo, we sat together with the City Planners of the City of Zurich, to understand challenges they face in a day to day work and how we could solve it with HoloLens Technology. We were discussing a new school project for one of the districts of Zürich. The client told us when they run a competition with architects they receive about 50 mock-ups which they need to analyse and visualise how the proposed project fits within its surroundings. Additionally, these mock-ups take up a lot of physical space. We wanted to simplify and optimise this revision process, so we developed HoloPlanning – A 3D city planning application for HoloLens. The city planners could display the proposed projects on the lenses, switch quickly between different building designs and see how each of them fits within a real terrain. HoloLens enabled them to see the virtual buildings and simultaneously be able to have a conversation and see the people around a meeting table.

Can HoloLens be used in outdoor space to ''show'' a virtual building on a construction site for example?

Yes, it can. During the project for the City of Zürich, we had our ''aha'' moment and realised we can also use HoloLens for outdoor spaces. It was challenging. We had to help HoloLens to ''find coordinates '' in the open space environment to be able to position itself and get the lenses to place the virtual building in the exact spot. Today the City of Zurich city planners use our HoloLens app for district planning and road construction. For example, they can see exactly where the existing piping is laid under the road, etc. Our first outside project was to handle archeological findings in Zürich at the Sechseläutenplatz. During the renovation of the plaza, the remains of a 5000-year-old lake dwelling settlement were discovered. We were asked to virtually reconstruct how such a settlement looked, so city residence and visitors can explore the dwellings via HoloLens. It was experiencing the past with the technology of the future.
What is included in the HoloLens set ?
Microsoft HoloLens is the world's first fully untethered holographic computer. The most important part of the set are the 2 holographic lenses. You can see the reality through it but also it projects the 3D virtual object (holograms). There is also a set of sensors, Inertial measurement unit (IMU) which enables HoloLens to understand where your head is and how it's moving, an environmental understanding camera to map the space around a person, microphones to capture voice commands, human understanding functions like gesture input, the battery and the spatial sound. The whole set weights 579 g.

HoloLens can support the design process of the building project. How about the construction work process?

We are currently experimenting with a project for a timber company and looking to improve the assembly process of the prefabricated buildings. With this project we want to find out what will be the advantage of using HoloLens by the onsite assembly team.
The timber industry is particularly interesting. It already produces 3D data for the CNC machines. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to use this data for HoloLens to optimise and support the assembly work, especially for the prefabricated buildings.
Your background is in IT not in the building industry. However are you seeing any new opportunities and possibilities for using HoloLens in construction (for commercial applications ) ?
The work of the construction industry is a complex process which can be simplified via use of 3D models – also physically on the construction site – not only in the design process. For example, HoloLens allows to see a building (virtually) on the construction site which will be built in one year's time. You can also already walk around that building, go inside it, check the room layout etc. It also helps to plan the site logistics or work sequencing. You don't need a roll of paper drawings or a PC to be able to see that. It is also possible to share the mixed reality experience across multiple devices and remote computers. This way we can also reduce the travel cost and travel time of the project team.
Can the HoloLens technology be combined with BIM (Building Information Modelling) ?
In my belief, devices like HoloLens can make BIM more attractive for users. Because the data produced in the BIM process can be used extensively, especially on the construction site to improve the speed of works and minimise the risk of errors.

Where within the project design and delivery process is the most interesting moment to use HoloLens technology?

I think we have to see HoloLens as an alternative to the 2-dimensional computer screen.
It makes sense to use HoloLens, anywhere in the process, where 3D matters and helps to understand the project and support communication processes.
It can be very useful in the beginning of the design. For example, the architect can design a 10 story building which he/she can see via HoloLens in a real environment. Then the architect notices that it makes more sense if the building was 1 story higher and 15 meters wider. He or she could than use the voice communication to make these changes by saying: "add 1 more story and make the building 15 meters wider." The adjustments can be seeing immediately via HoloLens. A video of it can be made and shared with a design team for review. If they decide that this doesn't look good, the previous version could be brought back. This would be a very useful function and we are already working on such applications.
You now have done few projects for the construction industry and had an opportunity to observe how it works. Can the industry learn something from the processes you use in your IT projects?
I have realised that the software industry works differently. We work in a very agile manner and our processes take into account that the product we develop for the client will have changes along the way. We expect that clients make changes and adjustment to their initial design. It's different in construction because you have more regulations and restrictions.

''From my software engineering point of view, the BIM process will help the construction industry to work in a more agile way. This will be a good thing.''

We already have amazing HoloLens technology and IT specialists who can programme it. What needs to happen for this technology to be widely used in construction?

I believe 2 important things need to happen:

  1. Working interdisciplinary in teams – no separate architecture department, IT department and construction department. We need to bring them together and let them work in the same team. This way all players bring their expertise. Only diffusion of this will bring good results.
  2. Experimenting and trying things out. Good data is needed. Having HoloLens is not enough. We need to have good 3D data of construction projects. The architectural and engineering plans need to be digital and allow to bring the digital world into the real world. Plans without 3D data are useless for missed reality.
Is there any platform / group of people who you brainstorm with to find new uses for HoloLens ?

Generally, there is a community dedicated to HoloLens. Here in Switzerland there are very few companies developing applications for HoloLens. afca is working with ETH and the Bern University of Applied Science in the area of using MR in education. And we are invited for demo days in the medical and education sectors. In construction we talk to individual companies. It would be nice to do a demo day and brainstorming session to find new uses for MR in this particular sector and maybe set up a MR community. I guess we just started a little movement with KvalhoTalks.
How will the construction industry use the VR or MR by 2030 ?
In the future the mixed reality will be an everyday experience.
We probably won't use the term VR and AR anymore. It will become normal. It will be the way people work, communicate, and create. We didn't talk about Robots but I can imagine that they will be a big part of the industry 12 years from now within the factories and on the construction site. Smartphones will surely look different and allow different functions. The devices for mixed reality will get much smaller – maybe even the size of contact lenses.

INTERVIEW BY JOANNA DEMKOW-BARTLOMÉ